OPINION – In the wake of 11 federal indictments of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there has been some speculation that this spells the end of the polygamous group headquartered on the state line between Utah and Arizona.
Don’t believe it for a moment.
The church will continue in one form or another, even though its most recent leader, Lyle Jeffs, was one of those rounded up by the feds. He is the brother of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS church who is serving a life-plus-20 sentence in a Texas prison for sexual crimes against two young girls he claimed as wives. Warren gave his brother the official title of Bishop of Short Creek – the community comprised of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, where the FLDS settled a ranching community in 1913 and set up the Council of Friends, a precursor of the FLDS church.
During the early part of his incarceration, Warren named William E. Jessop as his successor. It was at a time when he was, supposedly, making all sorts of confessions to some of his confidants. He told one that if people knew what he had done, they would string him up. His penance was short-lived, and he soon recanted and placed Lyle in the top position.
Since then, Lyle has been little more than a puppet for his brother, who continues to run the church from his prison cell while Warren maintains his position as church prophet.
Warren will now have to find another puppet to step in and lead by proxy.
My guess is that although its numbers may decrease a bit, the FLDS church will continue on and rebuild because there’s just too much money involved.
Over the years, church members engaged in a practice they call “bleeding the beast,” a system of welfare fraud and abuses that the feds finally saw fit to prosecute after an investigation uncovered about $12 million in welfare fraud committed by church members.
However, Mojave County Supervisor Buster Johnson has reported numbers showing that Colorado City members of the church hauled in $8 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds from July 2011 through February 2013, plus another $20 million in medical benefits during the same period. So that $12 million the feds found is only a drop in the bucket.
But that’s not the only source of income in the fundamentalist community coming in through a variety of enterprises and activities controlled by the church, including myriad businesses operating in the construction industry and, according to some, other darker involvements.
Following a money trail can be difficult at best sometimes, particularly when there are experts adept at funneling it offshore, hiding it in dummy corporations or sifting it through a tax-free organization like a church.
There is also a lot of property out there that remains in limbo, some foreclosed upon for unpaid taxes, some not.
It is a legal mess that could take years to completely unravel.
Plus, there are other locations where the fundamentalists have planted themselves.
There are groups in Pringle, South Dakota; Mancos, Colorado; Bountiful, British Columbia in Canada and a couple of outposts in Mexico – one on the Baja near Ensenada, another in the state of Sonora and one in the state of Chihuahua.
Since the arrest of Warren Jeffs, there have been several, including his former bodyguard and spokesman Willie Jessop (not the previously mentioned William E. Jessop), who have tried to put forward an image of the “good polygamists” who do not participate in marrying underage girls or welfare fraud or any of the other practices inherent in the FLDS culture.
We know, however, through the charges recently brought forward by the federal government and stories related by the most recent escapees from the community, that those claims are bogus.
And we also learned of a continuing conflict within the state when it was revealed that Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes received more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from a Northern Utah polygamous group. Reyes, of course, succeeded John Swallow, who succeeded Mark Shurtleff in the AG spot. Both Swallow and Shurtleff publically stated that they would not prosecute state laws banning polygamy. Both Swallow and Shurtleff await court dates on serious charges for allegedly shaking down a Southern Utah man who ran afoul of the feds and went to them to ask for their help in relieving the charges against him.
Make no mistake, this latest round of arrests will result in additional turmoil within the polygamous communities.
There could be a power struggle to merge a couple of the groups. Although there have been denials, the various polygamous units have much closer ties than they let on, trading young girls among themselves and doing business with one another.
What is most likely, though, is that Warren Jeffs will name another puppet to fill his brother’s position in the church and continue to call the shots from his prison cell. He most definitely will not surrender his position as prophet.
As far as church followers are concerned, I think it is safe to say that the majority will remain faithful to the church.
They have been indoctrinated in FLDS beliefs from birth, followed church leaders blindly all of their lives and devoted themselves to their prophet, all the while motivated by the dangling carrot of eternal salvation, which Warren Jeffs used as a powerful tool to coerce them into his perverted cult.
Despite the façade built up around them, they are not likely to abandon the church in significant numbers.
They have clung to their faith.
When their prophet ordered the women and children to be fed only beans and water, they obeyed.
When they were ordered to populate new outposts, they obeyed.
When husbands and wives were ordered to not engage in sexual activity with each other because 15 men of Warren Jeffs’ choosing were named to purify the bloodlines by impregnating the women of their choice, they obeyed.
Given the recent federal charges, the fundamentalists now have 11 more martyrs, 11 more instances of perceived persecution, 11 more reasons to hold onto their faith, even if they don’t get a cut of the money that’s still stashed away in the name of God.
Is this the end of the FLDS?
The church survived the 1953 raids when just about everybody in Short Creek was rounded up and thrown in jail, and it will survive this.
The latest round of arrests is little more than another chapter in the church’s sordid history.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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